We all know the tropes of our transparent, ectoplasmic friends – bumps in the night, shadows looming over us at the end of our bed and voices of beloved ones that we know aren’t home. It gives us a shiver, yet many opportunities to make these ghosts unique go by unnoticed. Of course, your world has an afterlife, I assume, which the souls of the dead go to and wander about. Or whatever it is you do when you’re dead. We’ll probably never find out, but alas it’s nothing we bother about today!
In the Forgotten Realms the afterlife opens up many opportunities on where to go depending on your actions in life, but in other realms, death might not be so simple. Maybe your dead don’t leave your world, but linger because of unfinished tasks, broken promises or unpaid debts.
Plot hooks and Unfinished Business
So, first of all, someone has to die to become a ghost, so let’s get straight to the killing. When you’re in combat with a goblin, you have no consideration for the little green fella. But as soon as his gruesome specter rises to try and kill you a second time? That may be rather unpleasant! In the RPG; Blades in the Dark, ghosts are created this way, and trust me, you don’t want ghosts when you’re playing Blades in the Dark. The setting that comes with the RPG even has an explanation as to what happens when someone dies. The short version: if and when someone dies, a crow seeks out the body and a loud bell rings out. Shortly after, the inquisition arrives and takes the body to one of the many crematoriums of the city to burn it and stop the ghost from spawning. Looking at this we can take grand inspiration from that idea and give our combat encounters an extra edge. The look on your players faces when they suddenly have to take on part two of the goblin encounter when these guys start flying around, laughing at the party that just slaughtered them? Probably pretty memorable. It also gives players a last chance for a goodbye if they die. Or maybe then it’s a battle of ghosts vs ghosts as the players suddenly take flight themselves – but now they have to find a way back into their bodies. Oh, the possibilities!
Ghosts lingering behind also makes murder a lot harder if your victim sees you, I mean – the murderer, coming. So maybe mutilations that happen to the body also stay on the ghost? Making tongues a welcomed trinket for serial killers, so that their victims cannot spill the information on who did it. This in and of itself can spawn a funny little mystery adventure. Just imagine the party in a mansion when suddenly someone falls down the stairs, dies and several stab wounds are found on the body. Someone on the estate has killed the landlord and the party might be next. Other than that, a mage’s hands and eyes might be removed for the simple fact that maybe they keep some spell-casting prowess after they passed on to the in-between.
Personally, I always saw ghosts as the spirit and soul of a person, their ego and their knowledge so to speak. One makes the personality, while the other is the experience you gained during your lifetime. So maybe the secret to read a dead language might be found in the tower of a long dead sage, which then must be summoned to translate the ancient book your party found. Maybe he only appears during full moons? But other more malevolent ghosts also start to climb the tower and your party has to fend off endless waves of undead spirits that are trying to possess them to finish whatever business needed finishing. Unfulfilled promises might also involve romantic plot hooks. If we take a look at the video-game The Witcher, there is a quest-line where a ghost possesses Geralt in order to have the time of his life. Your party could help a dead lover to finally confess to the love of his past life; or maybe your party helps a maid that has been harassed by an invisible force, which turns out to be her clumsy husband that just wants to help her out but always makes things worse. Sometimes a wholesome twist in a grim-dark setting, like the Realms of Dread in the Forgotten Realms or generally anywhere in the realms of Etharis, can make for a nice contrast when it’s always doom and gloom otherwise. With death looming over the party’s shoulders all the time it can be a welcomed change of pace in an otherwise hopeless world.
Another obvious change of pace, that usually makes the game grind to a halt, is a player death. But with ghosts staying behind these moments can gain meaning. Final parting words as they leave, maybe two more rounds of combat or perhaps trying to help the party as best they can before they vanish into the beyond. Or they don’t, and stay behind as specters themselves. This could either be as an NPC or if you are using Grim Hollow content, you could give the player a level in the specter transformation. As a rule of thumb and to keep rules light, they could gain a slow fly speed of 10ft. Maybe they can become invisible until the start of their next turn as an action, an unseen mage hand when they’re invisible, or maybe even a free misty step per day – all viable options that you could grant a player. But as we know, the same can go for a villain. They had the momentary victory of killing the alchemist, but soon rumors reach them. He might be back and perhaps he has possessed the royal doctor in an attempt to poison the king and push the kingdom over its edge into all out anarchy. It gives you the possibility to use an already established evil, make it more malevolent and ready for a higher tier of play. You could also turn this around and have the first big bad be a ghost that then is resurrected into the world of the living; stronger than before and even more dangerous. Your villain could also be influenced by the wishes of the dead, here’s an example:
Victor was a gravedigger on a small city’s cemetery. He took pride in his job because it needed to be done anyway and before someone else does it lackluster, he goes all in. But soon the bells on the graves ring and the ghoulish visages of the dead start to follow him, begging for closure. Some wanted trinkets of their old life, some wanted to see their loved ones again. It became all too much for Victor and he started breaking and entering their old houses, much to the dismay of the people that now lived there. He stole trinkets, cut hair off people to bring the dead closure; but they always wanted more. And then came those, that wanted revenge. With Victor already following their bidding it was only a small step for him to kill his first victim, creating even more ghosts that harassed him. It only took two weeks for the entire city to stay off the streets at night and the guards were unable to catch the criminal. For Victor, it was as if he always knew where they were coming from. He was not alone, the dead lend him their experience; teach him to concoct poisons, show where to stab a man for a painless death and demonstrate what to wear to not arouse suspicion when moving about the streets at night.
Come to think of it, we haven’t even talked about what ghosts look like!
Sure, there’s the good old fashioned translucent blue/green that’s really stylish and will probably never fade out of style. Ghosts can come in all sorts of shapes and forms but what if one were to appear as corporeal. No fade, no invisibility, straight up in HD color. You wouldn’t even be able to tell that it’s a ghost, were it not for the gruesome wounds. Now, players might mistake this for a zombie, which then could give them a nice surprise in combat when they slash through this creature of smoke and mirrors and realize that there’s more than meets the eye. This also allows you to use these ghosts for comedic effects. Thanks to the Harry Potter series and their famous Nearly Headless Nick, whom I’m assuming most people reading this are familiar with, we know that almost taking your head of is a real knee slapper. The gruesome and brutal can be made humorous. A ghost with an axe in their head groaning about a headache, the famous arrow through the head, or perhaps an ex-adventurer yearning for some romantic company in a lasting relationship.
If you’re a fan of the weird and monstrous, then you’ll probably want horrific ghosts. Things that boggle the mind and make your hair turn grey as you just merely glance at it. As we’ve established earlier in this article, ghosts could have magic abilities from their previous life, maybe mutilations shape the body but we can also consider this; their life as a whole. Let us take a simple bandit who was hung on a crossroad as an example. He might appear just as such, a man with a rope around his neck, gasping for air every now and then when he talks. But he might also have another side, maybe the rope can multiply, the head detaches and you have a floating Rope-topus that is now trying to strangle the party. You could also go into symbolism and have the man appear as a wolf preying on the weak that travel his road. Or you combine both ideas and have a big, bad wolf, with multiple floating ropes attached to its neck that grapple and restrain players that dare get close to this fearsome woofer.
Talking about wolves and dogs, ghosts could also make great companions. A Ranger Beast Master with a ghostly dog compatriot or a wizard necromancer with a specter owl as their familiar can be great thematically if you wanna dip into the grim and macabre. But that need not be the limit for allies that travel with the party. If we take another look at the Forgotten Realms, especially into the Ravenloft setting, we have a man that lost his son, cursed to not see the ghost that always travels with him. To quote:
Erasmus is a unique spirit. His behavior and rare appearances mark him as a thoughtful, art-loving teenager. He can’t express himself as fully as he’d like, since he can appear for only a few minutes every day and can’t speak.
Having a companion that can appear at times works well into the backstory of many characters. Maybe a sailor who’s deceased captain gives him thoughtful advice, maybe a warlock’s undying patron reaches out to him in a desperate moment, maybe fighter’s echo doesn’t vanish right away and it turns out that this particular one is a dead version of him.
The dead can offer their aid to the living, maybe in an attempt to fulfill their last wishes or repay due debts that they were unable to pay off in life. Whatever the reason, ghosts open up a plethora of plots and flavor possibilities for you and your party.
So the next time you make an NPC ally or adversary, think about the implications of them being a ghost.